LAKE TAHOE - Those who don't live in a ski town might question why someone who does would ever fly out of town on a ski trip.
That may have been the case before Vail Resorts introduced the Epic Pass, but now with access to three resorts in the Lake Tahoe region, Colorado Epic Pass holders who choose to stay put are simply missing out on exploring new and exciting terrain.
Trips to Lake Tahoe don't have to be booked in advance for the best deals. If you're looking for the best powder days, you can chase the snow and book a last-minute trip, or you can simply choose a convenient time to get away and try out some new terrain for a few days.
On the Vail Daily's Facebook page, a few Epic Pass holders weighed in on whether they'd make the trip out west and comments were mixed.
John Rosenthal said he's been skiing Vail and Beaver Creek for 30 years and would rather stick to what he knows and loves. CJ Romano said he has three Tahoe trips coming up, while Jonathan Snowden said "super cheap airfare and lodging would be the only way I would consider it."
I found last-minute flights on Southwest from Denver to Reno for about $220 roundtrip for a recent trip. (Southwest is a great airline for ski trips because they allow free checked baggage, including oversized ski and snowboard equipment.)
I rented a car from Costcotravel.com and was able to get a full-size sedan through Enterprise for less than $55 for all three days. And the lodging was the best part: A huge, renovated room at Harrah's Casino - featuring everything from two full bathrooms in the standard king room to a flatscreen TV to free valet parking - for $60 a night through a promotion on the hotel's website. The hotel had mixed reviews on Tripadvisor and other travel sites, but I found the service and the room to be exceptional - especially for the meager nightly rate we paid.
And with three resorts included on the Epic Pass, the total price of the trip was too good to pass up.
You can walk to the Heavenly gondola from any of the Stateline casinos and hotels, and there are also a few more luxury options near the base of the gondola, including an Embassy Suites and a Marriott.
South Lake Tahoe is not a Vail or Beaver Creek in terms of luxury. There are a few nice restaurants to choose from, but not dozens. There are a couple of nice spots for apres, but the base area around Heavenly is mostly casual - pizza joints, taco joints, a donut joint - you get the picture.
The terrain is why you go to Heavenly - it's really fun. The resort has a Nevada side and a California side, with most of the panoramic views of Lake Tahoe available from the California side, and wide, sweeping views of the valleys from the Nevada side.
The most extreme terrain is all the way to the east, on the Nevada side, and includes the beautiful Milky Way Bowl, as well as a series of chutes to the east in Mott and Killebrew Canyons. The rest of the mountain has tons of exciting intermediate trails, almost all with beautiful views of Lake Tahoe.
On the north side of the lake is Northstar-at-Tahoe, also owned by Vail Resorts and part of the Epic Pass. This is where skiers and snowboarders used to the luxuries in Vail and Beaver Creek would feel most at home. The Northstar village is very reminiscent of Beaver Creek Village, and lodging is much more high-end (there's a Hyatt and a Ritz-Carlton, for example). Terrain at Northstar is mostly intermediate at 60 percent, with advanced and beginner terrain making up the other 27 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
About 30 miles south of South Lake Tahoe is Vail Resorts' newest addition, Kirkwood Mountain Resort. This is the mountain where the die-hards go, and you can see why as you pull into the parking area. There are some serious runs at Kirkwood - some look practically vertical, and there's even a lift where the attendants ask a series of questions to those about to get on just to make sure they know what they're in for.
"Have you been on this lift before?" one lift attendant asked. "Do you know this terrain?"
The lift, called The Wall, takes skiers and snowboarders up - straight up - to the terrain known as Wagon Wheel Bowl. There you'll find a series of double black diamond runs, including thrilling chutes, and there's no way out but to swallow your fear and go down.
Kirkwood has more of a mom-and-pop resort feel, and Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said there's a "nice potential to develop the resort" when he announced the company's acquisition of Kirkwood last February.
Epic Pass holders can check out Kirkwood, Heavenly and Northstar now or later. But for a $659 ski pass, inexpensive airfare and lodging, now's as good a time as any to take a relatively cheap ski journey out west.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.